A birth, or sort of.
Whatever animal it is that struggles beneath the surface of this thin skin, it may bust the birth canal, break the brittle little edges of self that, after all, were made for exactly this kind of breaking. Behind the scream and all the contrived little struggles, a small, simple whisper, waiting patiently, for eons as necessary, for its one chance to speak. It is a chance that only ears can give it.
Starting Anew, Part I.
The people sit in a darkened room. Everything they thought they once knew has been taken from them. They are like Jews who, headed to America in 1945, forget the difference between the way to freedom and the way to the camps; you may think that ships and trains are unforgettably different, but only up to a point.
The people are not naked but they might as well be—they are that much like each other, no outer shell anymore to protect them against their horrifying lack of difference. In a way it is like something they remembered, from before, long before, something they used to do together, but it is not like that; there are no more shards of shattered culture to bind them to a common something memorable as this and not that. Language, too, is gone, or almost. These people have forgotten, even, how to grunt or scream.
The people stare into the empty space, shell-shocked soldiers of a war that did not occur. Their bodies are cold, and have been for who knows how long; no one can tell the time here, that’s gone too. But they are not occupied about that; blue-lipped, out of time, each face like the other, eye-lids barely moving.
Sound, though, remains, if not language; in the dark, they can, just barely, hear each other breathing. Their ears warm, slightly, in the feeble but steady heat of this foreign breath.
And touch remains, too. In the dark, an arm grazes the flesh, cold and obedient, of another arm. The ‘unknown touch of a stranger’!
Somewhere, through the darkness, desire stirs, just barely. How long it has been, no one can tell. A long time, maybe longer. Endocrine systems register the stir, if you can even call it that.
Someone feels something, at long last. But Voice is gone. Only this quiet, feeble breathing remains—it quickens only slightly, not yet like the panting of a parched dog; there is no hunger here yet nor barely even thirst. Mouths draw in just enough to survive, and now, desire-quickened, only a very little bit more. Eyes slide around in their sockets for a moment then stop, remembering that they are no longer even searching.
Years ago, having built the temple up to be as beautiful and as good as possible, with a permanence ill-fitting to the nature of this life-in-time, they had the audacity to wonder why it all burned, and in short order, to the ground.
Now their holy man stands empty-handed with a ballcap on and bad Walmart jeans—too dark. No one recognizes him as such; he is not an elder, he has no teachings. You ask him—”what is next?” He says— “who knows, I am waiting. The old ceremonies are all over now. It is like a white canvas and I am waiting.” He has been waiting for eons, and not because he is, necessarily, a patient man.
Further Instructions from the night.
Drive your Self towards the sea-shore. Let a storm roll in suddenly from the West. Let rain pound the windows of your dilapidated old car—vehicle enough to get you this far. Keep going, until you reach the edge of the continent.
Take off all your clothes. Lay your body bare to the pounding waves. Wait. Let night fall and the sun come up the next morning, hot and indifferent. Let the vultures come, pick clean every last bit of your flesh. Keep going. Do not move, until they suck every last bit of marrow from your bones.
Wait a little longer, even still. It is not time yet. There is still more that must be taken from you. Go on, wait some more. The ocean is beautiful here, is it not? And what could delight more than the steady rhythm of their beaks, grinding, peck by relentless peck, your marrow-less bone-shells into formless dust. Then you might be ready! But how exquisite, really, is this wait! It is cold here, when it is not suffocatingly hot—either way, you do learn, eventually, to take comfort in the strangest things.
What the Night originally instructed: (Aka “The Veteranarian”)
The instructions were simple, if you could find the time to hear them. It took awhile, too long really, but finally the night’s whisper reached you: “Lay down your heart at the edge of the cold, dark water. Let the hard rain pelt your face. Permit yourself to feel the thin, delicate moment where nothing and everything meet—the site where freeze becomes thaw. Next, give yourself, bit by bit and then, finally, all at once, to the devouring jaws of the night.”
Surely these instructions were not meant for you? But who else was intended but you? Did you see anyone there with you, where you faltered, in the lonely bowels of the night? You with the heart like a crypt—dark and tight, like it has not been entered in years. This heart of yours rots on the shelf like a can of salty anchovies no one will ever eat, though the Sicilians swear these things only get better with age.
So, get to it. Let your salty old heart struggle to break the tight grip of these gnarled sinews, tangles of skewed memory and strangled desire. They bind it to this stone-cage, beneath the long-abandoned temple, condemning it—you, your heart—to slow erasure, here, where you are, at the watery edge of nowhere, alone.
Look, though—how the night fills your not-inglorious solitude! You can thrash against it and you do, but the night does not mind. Yes, the cold rain is hard enough, or almost, to draw blood. Thank it! Every place where its relentless, indifferent rhythm strikes you becomes a frozen opening where the world might still, after everything, fill you. Let it!
You want too many things it is not permitted to want, you say? You want to want and to be wanted in a way the world does not allow. Does the night care or deny you? Does it? The night wants not just the Apollonian face you put on, once, in the orderly glory days of your now-faded youth. She’ll take this other, more gruesome mask also. After all she gave it to you—this mask that comes with the mad fever dance of middle-age. This second face finds you wrestling with all the dying possibilities that disintegrate inside a maturing womb with room enough, now, for only those things that really want—crave—to be born.
You whine and the night hears you—“I have let go of love; it is ridiculous and it hurts.” Fine then, she says, and offers further instruction: “leave desire at the edge of this cold water, bury your face in the furrow of the night.” You sweep your cold hands gently against the sand that marks the place where ocean and not-ocean meet, accept her instruction, and in a grand and graceful gesture of final acceptance, let go.
Ha! You only wish that were true! Your hands are gnarled claws, with desire caught in your twisted craw. No gracious gesture to be found in this night, the one reserved only for you! No, no. Instead you thrust your endlessly gripping fingers deep into the wet, near frozen sand with the force of a racehorse in heat, clawing at the deep. No clams here and no treasure. You come up empty handed, use your wet, exposed cheek to wipe the grit off your broken nails. You snarl for a moment, stare the dark in the face—and spit.
You remember, in this moment, now of all times, the sight of the breath of the old Scottish farmer, billowing like pipe-smoke in the chill air of an old barn in the still of a winter night, on haunted moorland, far back in your distant past. Ghosts and fog rolled across the field in the starlight, past the enclosure where the bull paced, wanting nothing more than to break his cage.
They—the ghosts and the fog, if not yet the raging bull—found you, long past midnight, in the bed of the ancient farmhouse where you stayed that season, white curtains blowing in the draft that wafted through these poorly insulated walls. Terrified, you lay unmoving, wide-eyed; barely breathing. With the vigilance of a hunter, you tracked the blue shadows of the moonlight as they danced across the cracked plaster of this ceiling—a ceiling that had witnessed generations come and go, with all the loving, dying, and pretending that entails.
A sound, a ruckus stirs you from your vigilant terror—a vehicle, an old truck by the sounds of it, accompanied by a scream no human could make. The bull’s thundering footsteps quicken. You think for sure this time he will break the fence, crash the feeble walls, find you in your bed.
In your white dressing gown you decide to brave the night. Bare-foot you tip-toe past the bull-pen, crunching frost underfoot, following the sound of these inhuman screams to its source. Reaching the threshold, you stop. In secret, you peer into the doorway of the old barn. The smell of old hay and new manure mix in your nostrils with the night air, sharp and cold. There he stands, leaning on the worn wooden stall, in gumboots up to his knees and an old wool sweater, barely more than five feet tall. The veterinarian!
With the focus of a surgeon or a lover, oblivious to you, to the ghosts, to the bull, and to the night, he thrusts his arm, without ceremony, into the birth-canal of the old cow—first a hand, then a forearm, until finally he is armpit deep inside her. After a few minutes of struggle—she screaming and he working to relieve her—he extracts a wiggling calf, and sets it on the ground to find its way. Newborn legs buckling, its mouth searches the darkness for a breast.
His job done, he wipes her blood off his body with on an old handkerchief he extracts from his back pocket, starting from his armpit and moving down to his weathered old hand. He rolls down his sleeve, runs his hands, still blood-crusted, over his face, from chin to forehead, then over his thinning once-red hair. He exhales. His warm breath hovers above the still-wet body of the baby calf who, by now, sucks hungrily at the sagging udder.
He turns in time to see you about to sneak away. He smiles and winks as you stand awestruck, looking past him to the tired beast’s gaping vagina. Then you are off, running into the night. The frost snaps at the soles of your feet, quickening your gait as you sail across the open moorland, far past the bull, past the ghosts, into the dense, moonlit fog, no longer afraid.